Coconut Oil and Dementia

Coconut oil may represent a cheap and natural treatment for dementia. This is because digestion of coconut oil in the liver generates molecules called ketones. Ketones are what our bodies produce when converting fat into energy, which is needed to prevent neuron degeneration.

The typical primary source of energy for the brain is glucose. However, it is believed that in Alzheimer’s disease, neurons are no longer able to metabolize glucose. This is why ketones, produced from digesting coconut oil, could provide an alternative energy source for the brain to function effectively.

Image Credit: mrmohock / Shutterstock
Image Credit: mrmohock / Shutterstock

Dementia and Glucose Metabolism

Compelling evidence has linked dementia to diabetes, a disorder involving resistance to or reduced production of insulin (the main hormone required for conversion of glucose to energy). It has been suggested that insulin dysfunction in brain cells may be initiated in Alzheimer’s disease, resulting in synaptic failure and eventual cognitive decline.

According to this theory, dementia patients must lack glucose in their brains. Indeed, brain imaging scans show that the neuronal areas affected in Alzheimer’s disease have significantly reduced glucose uptake.

This means that an alternative source of energy could prevent neuronal degeneration. Normally when we lack glucose, e.g. during times of extreme fasting, our brain instead uses ketones to provide energy. Therefore, researchers have suggested that a diet consisting of very few carbohydrates/sugars and very high amounts of fat from coconut oil could improve cognition in dementia, by increasing the use of ketones, rather than glucose, as a source of energy for the brain.

Evidence

Currently, there is little research investigating the potential use of coconut oil as treatment for dementia.

Promising evidence was reported by Dr. Mary Newport, a neonatal pediatrician in the USA, who found that inclusion of coconut oil into her husband’s diet, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, significantly improved his cognitive performance.

Even after only 37 days of the coconut oil treatment, performance on neurological measures of cognition, such as the clock drawing task, dramatically increased. Overall, Dr. Newport conducted these tests over a time period of five years and suggested that the treatment significantly slowed her husband’s dementia progression.

Experimental evidence obtained from a Spanish study assessing the cognitive impact of coconut oil further supports this notion. 44 patients with Alzheimer’s disease were administered either 40ml of coconut oil daily or a placebo over 21 days. It was observed that the patients who received the coconut oil significantly improved in certain cognitive domains like orientation and language skills.

Limitations

However, in the absence of substantial evidence from clinical trials, possible limitations of using coconut oil as a treatment for dementia must be considered.

For instance, although coconut oil may offer some benefits in acting as an energy fuel for the brain, very large amounts may produce other unknown effects which could be detrimental to health. There is some evidence to suggest that fats like coconut oil could indirectly result in increased levels of acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme involved in the breakdown of acetylcholine. This action opposes the process reinforced by current treatments for Alzheimer's disease, which work by reducing the levels of acetylcholinesterase to aid cognition.

Furthermore, a high-fat diet must be utilized within reason due to the associated risk of vascular diseases such as diabetes, stroke, or heart disease, which develop as a result of increased cholesterol.
This is why it is imperative to ensure that any potential dementia treatment is safe before it can be approved for widespread use.

Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: Jul 9, 2018

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